Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Captain Midnight (1954)

Captain Midnight
Debut: September 9, 1954
Starring:  Richard Webb, Sid Melton, Olan Soule
Synopsis: Captain Midnight of the Secret Squadron flies around the globe in his jet the Silver Dart, fighting various criminals and spies with his sidekick Ichabod Mudd and aided by a scientist, Dr. Aristotle Jones.

TreyCaptain Midnight (later renamed Jet Jackson, Flying Commando on TV) is a franchise that debuted as a radio serial in 1938. The character's popularity throughout the 1940s and into the mid-1950s saw him appear in movie serials (1942), a syndicated newspaper strip (1942), a comic book (1942–1948) and of course a television series (1954-1856).

The series aired on CBS and was sponsored by Ovaltine and Kix/General Mills.

Jason: 'll just go ahead and admit this was a pretty fun watch for me, the heavy handed in-world pitches for chocolaty, vitamin-laden Ovaltine only adding to the goofy charm. 

However, it swiftly becomes clear why legislation was enacted in the 1960s to regulate children's television, especially as regards advertising content. But thank your lucky stars that hero of supply side economics, former president Ronald Reagan, rolled back these restrictions, or else we may never have gotten to know He-Man, GI Joe, and Optimus Prime quite as intimately.  

Trey: The Gipper made Tv safe for product placement again! This really is a whole number level of undisguised shilling, though. It reminds me of The Shadow radio show and its Blue Coal pitches, except with more kid appeal.

I should mention before we get too far along that we watched Season 2, Episode 3, "The Frozen Men." Noted scientist Dr. Hartley is kidnapped by foreign agents. Captain Midnight, Ikky, and Tut figure out he has been working with extreme cold to make a super-durable metal. There's an atomic bomb dropped in this episode, though not directly on our heroes.

Jason: Spoilers! Anyway, Richard Webb, whose portrayal of a Starfleet officer deranged by the rigors of their duty is forever burned into my memory banks...

Trey: That would be Ben Finney in the Star Trek episode "Court Martial."

Jason: Yes. Here he does an admirably straightforward job of embodying the Cold War American Hero. His jaw is square enough and he delivers lines with the precise diction every Cold War school child should strive to perfect.   

His sidekick Ikky, who in this episode at least is in near-constant need of a hot shower, provides the kind of comic relief that might have generated some laughs for children of the 1950s. For us moderns, the humor is barely detectable. I did laugh out loud when, certain his Captain was incinerated in a nuclear blast, Ikky frowns slightly and delivers a somber, momentary salute before immediately moving on with his life. 

Trey, the science in this science fiction is worth mentioning I think. You've forgotten more about science than I'll ever know. Can you give us a breakdown on the speculative elements in this episode? I hold no degrees in the sciences, but I'm pretty sure some liberties may have been taken.

Trey: Well, I think the whole idea of super-metal Protonium that is created from nothing by intense is utterly fanciful. Then there's the medication profrigidium that is evidently super-endotherm in its reactions. None of this is science but rather "Science!" as found in pulp media. Of course, that's not even mentioning the 50ss naiveté about the horrors of nuclear bombs.

Jason: I'll regretfully cancel my profrigidium order at the pharmacy.

Trey: You wouldn't like the co-pay, anyway.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Jason King (1971)

Jason King
Debut: September 15, 1971
Created by:  Dennis Spooner, Monty Berman
Starring:  Peter Wyngarde
Synopsis: Playboy novelist, Jason King, after working as a consultant with an intelligence agency as a sideline, keeps finding himself thrust into the role of international, amateur sleuth.

Trey: The character of Jason King was created for the British spy-fi series Department S (1969). Spooner and Berman originally conceived the character as a sort of middle-aged, tweed coat and pipe smoking academic sort, but when Peter Wyngarde came on board, he had other ideas. According to Wikipedia, Wyngarde "applied much of his own personality, style and wit to the role." With the Swinging London style, and cool wit, the character was apparently compelling enough to spinoff. It ran for one, 26 episode season.

We watched the first episode, "Wanna Buy A Television Series?" on YouTube. I have to say it's perhaps the cleverest structured show we've watched so far--and unusual in the sense that the character Wyngarde plays in the most scenes in the episode isn't Jason King but rather King's blatant author-insertion protagonist, Mark Caine. Caine is solving a mystery set among the glamorous Mediterranean, as a group of criminals give a woman plastic surgery to look like a dead woman to attempt to scan yet another criminal. All these (fictional) doings are intercut with scenes of King trying to sell this script and series to an American TV exec. 

I thought the metafictional touches were quite clever, though I agree with the TV exec that the basic plot of the script King is pitching is pretty convoluted.

Jason: An opinion I share. Which would elicit exasperated rebukes from Jason King, who has only limited patience for unsophisticated Colonials unable to keep up. 

I also enjoyed the show's premise and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of its execution. The interplay between the frame story and the meta story was quite clever and frequently amusing. It felt good to be genuinely entertained by a piece of entertainment, no ironic detachment required.

Trey: Wyngarde's cool is definitely of its place and time. Without the clear context clues to know how his world takes him, I think he might be a bit baffling to the modern viewer.

Jason: Modern Bafflement Exhibit A: King's astonishing hair do and mustache situation!

Trey: The past is a different country. One with tonsorial excesses. 

Jason: But I was won over pretty quickly! As the story(ies) unfold, the cumulative effect of Wyngarde's multiple subtle and not-so-subtle characterizations reveal an entertainingly complex King, who is no mere Bond parody despite the intrinsic humor. 

According to Wikipedia this ITC production was shot on 16mm film (rather than the more expensive 35mm as a cost-saving measure) which makes it look infinitely better than Star Cops (produced 15 years later!) Jason King actually had a budget and it shows. 

Trey: Anyway, It's worth pointing out the influence this actor, character, and series had on comic books. The X-Men villain Mastermind is named "Jason Wyngarde" after the actor and this character and draws some from a villain he played in The Avengers episode "A Touch of Brimstone" which is where Claremont got his Hellfire Club. In Morrison's The Invisibles, Mr. Six has some of Wyngarde's style and appearance (including his moustache) and at one point works for an organization called Department X.

Jason: I am illuminated!

Trey: But wait! There's more! Outside of comics, the flamboyantly dressed protagonist of Kim Newman's The Man from the Diogenes Club, Richard Jeperson, is partially inspired by Jason King.

Jason: I have to admit the actor was never really on my radar until watching this show but he will always have a place in my heart for his portrayal of the diabolical Klytus in Flash Gordon. His performance in Jason King only enhanced my admiration.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Star Cops (1987)

Star Cops
Debut: July 6, 1987
Created by: Chris Boucher
Starring:  David Calder, Erick Ray Evans, Trevor Cooper, Linda Newton, Jonathan Adams, Sayo Inaba
Synopsis: In 2027, British career cop Nathan Springer leads the International Space Police Force, nicknamed the "Star Cops," as they try to keep the "High Frontier" safe.

Trey: Star Cops was the creation of Chris Boucher, the writer of several episodes of Doctor Who and script editor for the entire run of Blakes 7.  It ran for only 9 episodes on BBC2, having never found an audience. Wikipedia opines it has since undergone a reappraisal and is praised for its fairly realistic approach to near future science fiction. We watched the first episode on YouTube.

Jason: It is fondly remembered by its fan base (it might be fair to say "cult following") as one of the rare TV shows to embrace hard science fiction, sacrificing the fantastic for scientific plausibility in its presentation of the near future. Very near, in fact, as the show is set in 2027. Other than failing to predict the dissolution of the USSR, how'd they do, Trey?

Trey: It's tough to say, in that, I feel it's not so much unrealistic as unconvincing. The technical details we are given that, in the abstract, seem accurate, but how it's realized in terms of set dressing and the like might as well be the fantasy of Dr. Who. Springs digital (AI?) assistant did seem well done though.

Jason: It certainly also embraces the mundane, sacrificing action and dynamic pacing for character exploration and the nuances of life in the near future. That said, by the end of the episode, we know a lot about Nathan Spring, the setting and the rest of the cast is introduced, he effectively solves two murder mysteries (one each on Earth and in orbit) while the climactic action sequence occurs entirely off camera.  

Trey: I think that's true. The script seems definitely interested in his character. I don't think it gives Calder enough support in turns of scenes or dialogue to really make a lot from that. His given the chance at some acerbic comments that seem very British.

Jason: Well, Boucher's script is notable, among other things, for its refusal to hold the viewer's hand. While the characters must spew exposition, it is often handled entertainingly, I thought. The Robert Altman-esque overlapping dialogue I found hard to parse, occasionally, but I appreciated the intent, which I take as an element of the relentless grounding in realism attempted here. 

Trey: Sometimes it seems the realism of a community theater production...

Jason: Like most BBC efforts of the era, the effects budget is minimal, and it shows. The unfortunate need to depict freefall so often hurts it. I did enjoy Spring's frequent episodes of space nausea, a realist touch used to humorous effect.

The miniatures and designs of space stations and shuttles are well done and ring true enough, especially for 1987, but it's all shot on videotape which just looks terrible, especially on big ol' 21st century TVs. It's a barrier to entry! 

Trey: Agreed on both counts. It desperately needed some cinematic lightning like Miami Vice. Speaking of which, did you notice the oversized suits on a couple of the Brit cops?

Jason: I did, and I'm tempted to contrast Star Cops with its relative contemporary (previously reviewed here) in other ways. With alarming frequency, SC zigs where the MV zags! Spring and Theroux are the Bizzaro World Crockett and Tubbs! MV is above all a visual spectacle and mood, while SC has sharp dialogue delivered by actors dangling from crotch-harnesses!

Trey: That says it all really.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Chico and the Man (1974)

Chico and the Man
Debut: September 13, 1974
Created by: James Komack
Starring: Jack Alberston and Freddie Prinze
Synopsis: A cranky, old, white owner of a rundown garage gets a new partner and friend in the form of a twentysomething Chicano.

Trey: Chico and the Man ran on NBC for 4 seasons from 1974 to 1978. It survived the tragic death of one of its leads, Freddie Prinze by suicide in 1977. It was the creation of James Komack who also was responsible for The Courtship of Eddie's Father and Welcome Back, Kotter. It's been suggested that the idea was taken from a couple of Cheech and Chong sketches, something that Komack (at least according to wikipedia) doesn't seem to have entirely denied.

We watched episode 8 from the 2nd season, ""Mister Butterfly" on Tubi. In this one, George Takei guest stars as a Japanese businessman who arrives at the garage believing Ed ("the Man") to be his long-lost father.

Two things to me are notable about this episode (and really series because I also watched the first episode). Both are things I knew so they aren't surprised, but they bear repeating. One is that these older sitcoms are pretty unfunny by modern standards. They have moments of humor, sure, but at best they are relatively less "joke dense" than modern sitcoms and at worst they rely on the lamest sight gags or just general amusement at certain sorts of stock or stereotypical situations. This last I think is mostly a trait of the form. It's present to greater of lesser degrees in "trad" sitcoms up to this day--there just get to be fewer trad sitcoms post the 90s.

Jason: By chance, I also watched (most of) the first episode, after experiencing mild bewilderment with the second season episode we selected. Doing so provided a bit more clarity on the series' intent and the flavor of comedy we should expect. Without getting into it too deeply, I agree that it just wasn't that funny (anymore) and that this social and topical kind of humor is very much rooted to the era it attempts to reflect. Funny faces remain funny over the years, as physical comedy is pretty much eternal, but as cutting edge as C and the M was in its day, the jokes (a nebulous term with many meanings and subcategories) just haven't aged well. 

Trey: Going with "rooted in the era," there's the degree of casual racism and racial stereotypes. The 70s was, of course, getting more honest about these issues after the whitewashing of America common to earlier sitcoms, so it's a trait of things like The Jeffersons, All in the Family, etc. So, Ed's and (in the first episode) these two cops' prejudice and racial slurs in the first episodes are typical of the recognizing the problems and building understanding sorts of elements of these shows. 

Jason: The show was emblematic of what seems to have been an earnest attempt at addressing this whitewashing and lack of representation for the diverse groups that made up the American viewing audience but is clearly a baby step in this direction and likely wouldn't have had the success it did with a more radical approach. The lovely opening montage, depicting early 70's life in an East LA barrio, accompanied by Jose Feliciano's theme song, set my expectations too high. 

Trey: Undercutting its good intentions, perhaps, is Chico's casual stereotyping of Asians in S2 ep 8. Or the broad stereotypically Japanese portrayal Takei and Beulah Quo (as his mother Mariko) are required to give. 

Jason: This stuff set me reeling, as my expectations were thwarted. I expected that stuff from The Man, of course, but not Chico! I wondered if depicting the cultural bias of the ostensible hero of the series wasn't some coded way of excusing the likes of The Man. We're all bigots in some way, after all.

The long shadow of WW2 hangs over the episode, so I was relieved that the stereotyping was of a slightly less-malignant variety than it could have been, which may have been intentional. 

Trey: On the positive side, I think Prinze's charisma is apparent even in just the slim space of an episode. I don't know that it sells me on his standup, but I could see him having had a long career. Albertson is likewise good in his role, such as it is.

Jason: He is charming throughout and his star power shines through the rough material. It may be my imagination, but I thought he might have been struggling with barely concealed discomfort throughout his performance. Whether that be due to his well-known personal problems or a displeasure with the material is unknown to me of course.  

Albertson's embodiment of the Man was pretty much perfect.  

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: The Starlost (1973)

The Starlost
Debut: September 22, 1973
Created by: Cordwainer Bird (Harlan Ellison)
Starring: Keir Dullea, Gay Rowan, Robin Ward
Synopsis: A group of young people discover their small world is just one habitat of many in a vast generation starship. They must travel to the ship's bridge in order to find the controls to save it from destruction.

Trey: The Starlost is a Canadian series which was syndicated in the U.S. It ran from 1973-1974 for just 16 episodes. It had an auspicious beginning. The concept was created by Harlan Ellison, Ben Bova was signed on as science advisor, and special effects were to do done with a system created by Doug Turnbull. Unfortunately, nothing came off as planned. 

Jason: Even with the knowledge that Harlan Ellison opted to remove his name from this production and go with his pseudonym of disapproval, I had some hope that it would retain enough of the original vision to be of interest. I was also intrigued by the series' long form serial format, something rare in TV science fiction. As it turns out, it was indeed interesting, but sadly not as a hidden gem of quality entertainment!

I was held spellbound throughout my viewing and couldn't help but to squirm with discomfort and sympathize with Ellison as his efforts met with a terrible fate! 

Trey: Sad but true.

Jason: Ellison, a true giant in the field of public airing of grievances, holds forth on the topic in an hour long interview available on YouTube that is considerably more entertaining than this episode. 

Trey: I will say, while I have read that Ellison complains about the story here and there, having read his script, the production is, in synopsis, reasonably faithful (given the restrictions of low budget TV) to his vision. It is in the realization of those words as a television production where it fails.

Jason: The tone is set for in the cold open, in which the principals stare in awe at their Ark after happening upon their first set of windows that provide an exterior view. The camera lingers on the faces of the actors as they gape, minds blown to tiny bits by the revelation. And when I say lingers, I mean lingers! On and on they gape until the credits sequence rolls. Keir (2001) Dullea, cast at least in part due to his SF credentials, gapes with the best of them, but to near-risible effect here. 

Trey: This seen was one Ellison had a problem with. He felt putting this reveal of the spaceship at the beginning was a bad move, and I tend to agree. But we soon move to where Ellison's script starts in Amish-like society of Cypress Corners.

Jason: Yes, and there's guest star Sterling Hayden, whose astonishing biographical notes on Wikipedia are worth a look, is a standout as Elder Ezekiel, but even his performance shows telltale signs of rushed production, sloppy editing, or both. 

The most exciting action sequences in the episode involved Dullea fleeing from an angry swarm of Space Mennonites, all at a leisurely jog due to the tiny sets. 

Trey: Yeah the whole thing feels stagey--really, worse that stagey, more like local theater company production. Some of this came to pass due to the failure of the fancy Magicam system they had planned to employ for the special effects. When that didn't work, they were stuck with a production space too small to build sets and had to resort to blue screening everything. And the chroma key technology of the era is of course not the digital sets we know of today.

Jason: The effects are decidedly unspecial. But beyond that, questionable choices seem to have been made! The information dispensing computer system on the Ark was notable for its eccentric take on a user interface! Surely Ellison envisioned something slightly different?

Trey: In the script, the information dispensing computer is not free of eccentricity and the silliness of pointing to this numbered record or that is still present, but it's more elaborate and so comes off on the page as much less comedy relief.

Jason: All told, I'm sad to report that for this viewer, the abundant promise of what could have been a historic advance in adult science fiction TV entertainment was instead a hash of unfulfilled ambition. 

Trey: I'll dissent mildly. It is indeed cheap and a disappointing product. However, if one comes to it with say 70s Dr. Who production in mind--well, it's even cheaper than that, but I think slope is much gentler, and I think it is possible to appreciate Ellison's script and concept, which I think is pretty good and could be the basis of a good series today.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: The Buccaneers (1956)

The Buccaneers
Debut: September 19, 1956
Starring:  Robert Shaw, Paul Hansard, Brian Rawlinson, Edwin Richfield
Synopsis: On New Providence, Captain Dan Tempest, an ex-pirate turned privateer for the Crown, forms an uneasy alliance with Lt. Beamish, the deputy governor, to fight the King's enemies in the Caribbean.

Trey: The Buccaneers was Sapphire Films drama series for ITC Entertainment, broadcast by CBS in the US and ATV and regional ITV companies in the UK. It was somewhat aimed at kids and ran for 39 episodes until June 12, 1957.

We watched episode 12 from December 5, 1956, "Dan Tempest and the Amazons." It was written by Peggy Phillips and Zachary Weiss. I picked this episode because I was intrigued about how they were going to fit Amazons in with Pirates. Bait and switch!

Jason: "Amazons" isn't perhaps the most obvious descriptor of the women here, no. The first couple of minutes of the show were such a showcase for a peculiar 18th century piratical brand of sexism (as presented in this mid-20th century production) that I began to fear the episode would be unfit for review other than finger-wagging condemnation from the 21st century. As the plot unfolded, matters took a (somewhat!) more progressive turn, while remaining peculiar.

Trey: Yes, the women, potential brides looking for prospects in the New World, who have been kidnapped and held for ransom by a "French" (I use that term only loosely as the actors inconsistent and half-hearted attempts at an accent don't rate. I've heard better accents around a D&D table.) pirate. Ultimately, the women prove surprisingly capable and free themselves.

Jason: And that brief sketch probably telegraphs the light-hearted tone of the episode. It's that variety of corny, "battle of the sexes" humor. It ignores the unsavory potential of the situation, keeps the violence gentle slapstick, the references to adult themes mostly veiled, and the sense of peril muted. As a result, there are few swashes successfully buckled. 

Trey: Certainly not. Tempest and his sea dogs are routed by matrons and maids. Of course, one could say that this was due to the men's sexist tendency to underestimate the women. Still, not stuff likely to form the basis of childhood, wood sword derring-do. 

Jason: A glance at the episode listings online suggest this episode may have been an anomaly, a breather from all the action of previous episodes. Sorry kids, no Blackbeards or El Supremos this time around.   

I was excited to see some early work by the legendary Robert Shaw, but I must admit to some degree of disappointment. Am I wrong here or was his performance phoned in? Maybe he just didn't have much to work with this episode?

Trey: Definitely seems phoned in. Hopefully it was just a story he could get behind, not his approach to the whole show.

Jason: Unlike previously reviewed half-hour action/drama shows (like M Squad!), notable for their hyper-condensed plots, The Buccaneers just felt simplistic. Again, this is a show intended for children.

Trey: Not more simplistic but sort of stretched. It could have done with at least another twist or complication. Again, though is it the show or merely this episode?

Jason: I think it would be interesting to try another episode to see if maybe we just picked a clunker this time around. I'm sure I can spare another 25 minutes sometime!

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Classic TV Holiday Special: Dragnet (1951)

Dragnet (1951 series)
Debut: December 16, 1961
Created by Jack Webb
Starring: Jack Webb, Ben Alexander
Synopsis: Sgt. Joe Friday and his partners follow procedure as they investigate crimes in Los Angeles.

Trey: With the holiday season upon us, it seemed like a good time to dive into the Classic TV tradition of the "Christmas episode." What better place than the venerable, multi-media police procedural franchise, Dragnet. Dragnet got its start on radio in 1949 but moved to TV in 1951. That series ran until 1959. It was revived in new, color series in 1967 and ran until 1971. Films and new series have shown up into the 21st Century.

We watched the episode "The Big Little Jesus" which aired on December 24, 1953. Father Rojas at the Old Mission Plaza Church discovers that the statue of the baby Jesus has been stolen from the Nativity display. The statue isn't worth a lot, but it's of great sentimental value to the parish. Friday and Smith promise to try to get it back before Christmas Day mass--but that means they've got less than 24 hours to do it.

This same story had aired just two days before on the radio show. It would also be remade (as "The Christmas Story"), virtually unchanged, for the 1967 series, airing on December 21, 1967. 

Jason: I vaguely remember watching a few episodes of the 1967 series in syndication in the mid-80s, particularly the infamous LSD episode, as a piece of kitsch illustrating square culture's inability to grasp what the groovy kids were up to. But it had style! The 1953 episode we watched, created at the height of its cultural moment, feels right at home with itself and resists a solely ironic viewing. It is also quite stylish! 

That said, the opening scene jolts the viewer into a bygone culture, as ultra-square bachelor Joe Friday dutifully fills out an impressive stack of Christmas cards. His partner Frank recommends marriage as the pragmatic solution to this burden - his wife takes care of all such matters. Joe muses, seemingly crunching the numbers for a moment, when they are interrupted by news of theft of a statue of the baby Jesus. For the time being, Joe remains all cop.

Their exchange, a machine gun barrage of snappy dialogue presented in quick cuts from close up to close up, demands the viewer's full and complete attention and sets the tone for the rest of the episode. Information is delivered verbally, due at least in part, I'm sure, to Webb's use of the nearly unaltered script for the radio version of Dragnet, as well as time and budgetary limitations. The dialogue comes at breakneck speed, as if fueled by black coffee and an ashtray full of Chesterfields.

One of my favorite moments was when the priest apologized to Joe and Frank for monopolizing their time during the holidays. 

I found this episode fascinating, as a window into the increasingly foreign past and as another example of the hyper-condensed storytelling of its era. 

Trey: I too had seen snippets of the '60s version and I'd seen the 1987 spoof film. Joe Friday doesn't seem quite as square and certainly not as priggish as he would in in the 60s. The 50s is the world he was meant for, though still it's obvious he's a straight-arrow, by-the-book sort.

It's interesting what it says about the view of faith in this era. AVClub did a comparison between this version and the 60s remake that's interesting. All and all, I found my heart suitably warmed with this one. Jason, what about you?

Jason: Most definitely. If Joe Friday can get a little sentimental, there's something there for all of us!


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